LOS ANGELES – The former Los Angeles County undersheriff told a jury on Monday that he was far removed from the planning of a scheme to conceal the whereabouts of a jail inmate-turned informant, but admitted acting as a “conduit” for information after the events took place.
Paul Tanaka, the department’s former second-in-command, is accused of obstruction of justice for allegedly helping thwart attempts by investigators to contact inmate Anthony Brown and bring him before a federal grand jury in August 2011.
During cross-examination, Tanaka answered dozens of times that he couldn’t recall phone calls, email messages and conversations he allegedly had regarding Brown at a time when sheriff’s officials had discovered that the FBI was using the inmate as a secret informant to investigate allegations of excessive force within the jail.
In response to questions about his Friday testimony, in which he said that ex-Sheriff Lee Baca was requesting updates about the Brown “situation,” the retired lawman said he referred his then-boss to some of the deputies directly involved with Brown.
“They had the details the sheriff was looking for,” Tanaka told the Los Angeles federal jury.
However, phone records covering that period reveal no calls between Baca and the deputies, but instead show dozens of calls between Tanaka and former sheriff’s personnel convicted in a previous trial of conspiracy charges linked to the Brown scheme.
Prosecutors contend that, after learning of the federal grand jury investigation into excessive use of force and public corruption in the sheriff’s department, Tanaka closed ranks and conspired to obstruct the investigation.
The conspiracy allegedly included concealing Brown from the federal government and the grand jury, falsifying records related to the informant, tampering with witnesses, and even threatening to arrest a federal agent who had been carrying out her lawful duties.
“I don’t believe I was present for any formulation of the plan,” Tanaka testified, telling the jury that he was merely a “conduit” for information relayed to Baca after the fact.
Although he told jurors that he had authorized overtime for deputies ordered to stand guard outside of Brown’s cell, Tanaka said he never denied any FBI request to interview an inmate.
“It wasn’t anything that was done at my direction,” he said.
As for the operation in which Brown was transferred to a jail medical ward before being taken to an outlying sheriff’s station, Tanaka said he was notified only “after he (Brown) was moved.”
Under hours of questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox, Tanaka remained calm — until the prosecutor opened the topic of Tanaka’s time as a sergeant at the Lynwood sheriff’s station in the late 1980s.
When Fox asked about his alleged membership in the Vikings, a clique of Lynwood deputies who have been described in court papers as a white supremacist gang, Tanaka — who admitted to having a Vikings tattoo on an ankle — became visibly angry and his voice began to rise.
Denying that there was a clique of violent deputies at Lynwood, Tanaka told Fox that the “Viking” was merely the “mascot” of the station’s “intramural sporting team.”
Fox asked Tanaka if he knew that a state court judge had described the Vikings as “a deputy gang that was engaged in civil rights violations and other acts of lawlessness.”
The ex-undersheriff responded that he had no knowledge of such a finding, adding that there was nothing “sinister” about the Vikings name or image.
“The media and the public made that symbol what it wasn’t meant to be,” Tanaka said, adding that his tattoo was designed to imply “camaraderie or pride.”
His voice getting louder, Tanaka said he was “not a Viking in the sense you are trying to refer. Because you’re trying to make it evil, doesn’t mean that it is evil.”
Tanaka is charged with two counts of obstructing justice by attempting to derail the federal investigation. If convicted of both counts, the 57-year- old Gardena resident would face up to 15 years in federal prison.
Several friends of Tanaka were called to the stand today by defense attorneys as character witnesses. Ed Medrano, chief of the Gardena Police Department, told jurors that Tanaka is “generally, an honest person.”
After the jury was sent home, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson rejected a defense motion urging him to reconsider an earlier ruling denying a request to have Baca testify under immunity from prosecution. Defense attorney H. Dean Steward argued that Baca could provide information that directly contradicts the prosecution’s theory of Tanaka’s guilt.
The case is expected to wrap up Tuesday with jury deliberations probably starting around 2 p.m.
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